Saturday, 18 January 2020

Conservatives don't need philosophers, just Sam Gamgee.

At the moment it's perhaps sacrilege to suggest that Roger Scruton's beautifully written bucolic reaction isn't helpful, let alone representative, of conservatism as a political idea. Like so many, Scruton seems to see conservatism as being the preservation of a vaguely defined thing called either 'Christian' or 'Western' civilisation, which perhaps explains his conflicted views of Islam and Judaism. Yet Scruton's death, and the quite proper reflection on his contribution to conservative thinking, has raised the issue of why (we're told) there are too few conservative thinkers. Here's Ben Sixsmith:
The Left has its intellectuals. We like to characterise leftists as emotional if not hysterical — and that is by no means always an injustice — but they also have a deep, if narrow, emphasis on learning that the Right does not share. Read the London Review of Books and you will find a depth of literary and historical erudition that cannot be found in Right-wing publications.
We perhaps need to start with recognising that Sixsmith seems captivated by the sort of public intellectual that those on the left have always enjoyed - I too read the London Review of Books and, far from finding an "emphasis on learning", I see instead that narrowness Sixsmith alludes to, a wonderfully written epistle to London's elite, left-wing intellectual aristocracy that acts merely to reinforce their exclusiveness and disdain for ideas outside that narrow world. If this is "thinking", let alone philosophy, then you are welcome to it.

Should we, as conservatives (we should claim this title again and reject "The Right" as a purely reactionary descriptor) be concerned about the lack of philosophy? Should we be concerned also at the lack of conservative economists or sociologists too? We know that academia is an uncomfortable place for conservatives, you need only watch the manner in which Jordan Peterson was dumped by Cambridge University at the first hint of criticism, or their defenestration of Noah Carl on the basis of a petition. That one of the two or three greatest universities in the world cannot countenance having academics who challenge the sacred orthodoxy should be a bigger scandal but it goes a long way to explain how it is near impossible for conservative voices to be heard in academic social sciences or philosophy.

But does this matter? Or is ivory tower thinking simply, as most instinctive conservatives feel, a waste of time? What is clear, however, is that thinking (in one way or another) about conservatism and the application of its ideas to policy, is very alive when you step away from universities and arrive in the world of the think tank. It is probably right to say that we've never been in a position where the influence of think tanks - right, left, liberal, socialist, conservative - has never been greater. And, while these organisations more often focus on the practical, there is a sense that conservative thought is perhaps surviving the attempt of the academic left to kill it off.

Conservatives have always had a welcome scepticism towards intellectuals, one born in the knowledge that so often those intellectuals are wrong and fertilised by that central principle, doubt. The Conservative Party is the only one to have been led by a philosopher and theologian who wrote an actual treatise on why we should be sceptical. And the problem with intellectuals is that, too often, scepticism is a foreign country - in that treatise, Balfour even noticed our reluctance to apply the same rules to our own beliefs as we apply to those other others: that our position is this- from certain ultimate beliefs we infer than an order of things exist by which all belief, and therefore all ultimate beliefs, are produced, but according to which any particular ultimate belief must be doubtful. Now this is a position which is self-destructive. The difficulty only arises, it may be observed, when we are considering our own beliefs. If I am considering the beliefs of some other person, there is no reason why I should regard them as anything but the result of his time and circumstances.
This scepticism makes the case for being conservative because it reminds us we should proceed with caution. To return to Scruton, his instinct to conserve came (he tells us) from seeing the riot and destruction of Paris in 1968. But this is not a rationalised philosophic position but rather an emotional response, the same response that gives us good and bad from that desire to preserve - the NIMBY on one hand, and the community archive on the other. We save old buildings, treasure ancient books and preserve cobbled streets out of an attachment to the thread of human history. This is not about the great and good of times past but the forgotten men and women who created those things:
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Although the erudition of the philosopher embraces things felt, I fear that Sixsmith in his search for ideological certainty, looks for a definitive conservative text or texts, where none exists. We can describe what conservatives feel about things, explain the importance of tradition, of family and of community, but there is no philosophical rule book here nor should there be one. I can take my well worn copy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, turn to the 'Scouring of the Shire', that part so tragically left out of the film, and tell you this is the most profoundly conservative piece of writing. If you want to understand, don't bash your way through dry tomes, just ask why it was that Sam Gamgee took his gift from Galadriel and went to every corner of The Shire to share its benefits. Ask why Sam got married, raised a family, became just a well-regarded but ordinary hobbit rather than some great and dominant ruler. Ask why unchanging is so important in a changing world.

It would be lovely to have more conservative thought in universities. But, in the end, it doesn't matter because much philosophising takes the form of that London Review of Books, a reverential self-regard not a search for truth. Sixsmith is right that conservatives should acquaint themselves with our intellectual heritage but this is a vast treasure trove not restricted to philosophy - the poetry of Kipling and Houseman, the writing of Tolkien, Trollope and a hundred others stretching right back into the mists of time, back to Chaucer and Langland and before them to the tales of our ancestors like Beowulf.

So long as we keep these things, and bring our own understanding to them, there is no prospect of conservatism or conservative thought petering out. The human instinct to caution, to preservation and to the traditional of story, of remembering, is the most important source for conservative ideas not great brains wrestling great ideas. The latter, I fear, lead us more towards authoritarianism, to Saruman rather than to that shared, fair, equitable and good society that Sam Gamgee restored with the earth from Loth Lorien.


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Manchester's review makes the case for a national public enquiry into street grooming

It's some time in the early 2000s and, as the controlling group's executive on Bradford Council, we're briefed about 'grooming' in Keighley. It's a matter-of-fact presentation albeit one informed by the political issues associated with the BNP and the concerns raised publicly by Anne Cryer, then Labour MP for the town. And, since you are going to ask, that's it. We were told it was with the police, that social services were engaged and that it was a bad but isolated incident. I don't recall any other discussion or presentation on the subject in the remainder of my time as a member of the Council Executive (I left in 2006).

I present this observation - it's a recollection rather than a set of facts - because it seems to me that we failed some very vulnerable young people back then. And I say 'we' here to refer to us as councillors because every year, sometimes more than once, we make a big thing of us being 'corporate parents' to hundreds of young people in the Council's care. So when one of those young people is raped, exploited and abused we should be (and mostly aren't) taking some responsibility.

Today the review commissioned by Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham has reported on the scandal of how Greater Manchester Police allowed hundreds of abusers to carry on raping and exploiting young people in the city. The report describes how GMP made choices about resources and priorities, the downgrading of serious accusations and the ending of the investigation that, without question, resulted in subsequent abuse, exploitation and rape of children:
After her (Victoria Agoglia) death a police investigation, Operation Augusta, was set up to see if there was a wider problem of child sexual exploitation in south Manchester. Officers managed to quickly identify a network of nearly 100 Asian men potentially involved in the abuse of scores of girls via takeaways in and around Rusholme, but the operation was shut down shortly afterwards due to resources, ‘rather than a sound understanding’ of whether lines of inquiry had been exhausted.

Barely any charges were made against the men identified by the operation. Eight of them later went on to commit serious sexual crimes, including the rape of a child, the rape of a young woman, sexual assault and sexual activity with a child.
At the same time as we were being told that a similar case in Keighley was under control and an isolated incident, GMP along with Manchester social services were, in effect, doing the same. And we know now that there were other cases in dozens of other towns and cities including Rochdale, Rotherham, Birmingham, Dewsbury and Bradford. Far from being isolated incidents, we had a pattern of abusive and exploitative behaviour directed to vulnerable teenage girls right across the country.

Since this became clear, we have seen individual reports from each of these places, some more telling than others but all showing the same detachment as public authorities repeatedly ignored representation, dismissed exploited girls as 'making their own choices' or 'sexually aware', and hinted as other sensitivities contributing to the lack of action to protect the abused or deal with the abusers. Beyond these public reports there is a lot more information, detailed and granular evidence, hidden away in Serious Case Reviews and Court Files. Public authorities have used every trick in the book to avoid their failings being revealed - that the victims were mostly children means that these authorities feel able to hide behind the laws intended to protect young people, extending them to protect social workers, police officers and the CPS lawyers from proper scrutiny. Too many people responsible for failing to protect young girls from exploitation, abuse and rape have avoided being held to account.

There have now been dozens of similar cases across the UK and it is time to ask how it is that, despite the attention supposedly given to correcting past failures, the cases still keep coming forward, each one showing public authorities being slow to respond and hesitant in taking action. Every case involves failures by social services to protect children in their care and most involve the police giving a disturbingly low priority to the abuse. We're told by councils and police that all the past problems are resolved (this, in my experience, is definitely the argument in Bradford) but we get no actual evidence to substantiate this assertion. Meanwhile, anecdotally, the problem on the streets persists with girls (often as young as eleven) targeted by young, mostly Pakistani heritage, men.

It is time to think seriously about how we are responding to this problem and the words coming from police and councils, while sympathetic and carefully crafted, seem complacent and intended to give the impression that all is right when evidently it is not. There is a very strong case for a properly constituted - as Ed Miliband would doubtless say, judge-led - enquiry into the failures of public authorities to protect vulnerable girls from abuse. If government can find time and money to do enquiries into the gender pay gap (and to pass legislation too), I'm absolutely sure they can find the time and money to look into the far more serious issue of the industrial exploitation, rape and abuse of girls, many in the care of the state.

Such an enquiry can, as well as considering actions to take in response to public sector failures, look at why girls in public care are given so much license and at how young men - and some not so young - feel able to treat those girls as the trashiest sort of disposable chattel. There are some who say that we can't do this because the Pakistani community would feel put upon in some way but, from conservations I've had over recent years, I'm absolutely sure that this is not the case and that many from that community (and the wider Muslim community), especially those trying to provide a voice for women, would welcome a robust and honest examination looking at a problem they know persists with a minority of Pakistani heritage men.

In failing to respond openly to the problem - as we know from Rotherham, partly from fear of being accused of racism - public authorities give oxygen to those who are racist and anti-Muslim. The complacency of council leaderships, police and crime commissioners and those leading social services risks building up to a further problem as exploitative grooming continues on the streets of many towns and cities. A public enquiry would provide some restitution for victims, would put the problem in a national context instead of as a series of local challenges, and would provide the basis for government to consider whether changes to law, regulation or resourcing are needed to provide better protection for girls and a tougher response to those men who want to exploit, abuse and rape those girls.


Tuesday, 7 January 2020

The Conservative Party is not neoliberal (and this is a good thing)

 There's a common view among ultra-liberals and those folk who, in an act of ironic etymological colonialism, call themselves 'neoliberals' that economic utilitarianism is the only creed worth following. Everything is subservient to maximising the utility we (as a collective) obtain from the use of resources while at the same time an absolutist adherence to individual licence becomes the sole justification for social policy. What's worse is some of these people believe - god alone knows why - that a political party calling itself conservative should sign up to this essentially extremist agenda.

This isn't to say that individual choice, open markets and free trade aren't good things - ideas and institutions that any good conservative would want to sustain. Rather it's to observe that not everything about people's lives is determined by economics, for all that economists want us to believe so. When people hesitate and ask, "is that right?", "have we thought through what that might mean?" or, more simply, "I don't like that idea?" they represent the essence - the doubting essence - of conservatism. For all that we recognise how the enlightenment's ideas led to betterment, we also see how ultra-liberalism is pulling down institutions - family, democracy, community - that we value and support.

Ultra-liberalism doesn't have real answers to the fragmentation - atomisation is the trendy word - of society, the growth in family dysfunction, and the loss of trust and faith among the general population. All it offers is either an almost feudal idea that what's good for the rich and powerful must, by definition, be good for the poor and powerless. Those of a left-wing persuasion then point to how free markets (they say) create this dysfunction and that our response must be to stop all that freedom, at least so far as economic choice is concerned (I appreciate that these left-inclined people don't quite put it that way).

What we've seen however is that, as the left's preference for identity politics (and the creation of new social sins derived from that politics) spreads, ultra-liberals - wedded as they are to an absolutist viewpoint on personal licence - make common cause with the left in promoting policies crafted from this 'intersectionality' because licentious selfishness appeals to their world view. And, living in a mostly urban, economically advantaged world, such selfishness accords well with their liberalism. What they don't see - because they seldom look beyond their world - is the damage these attacks on collective and communal elements of society do to less entitled or successful people and places.

Since the left has largely given up on family and community as the basis for society - preferring the bizarre world of intersectional top trumps - we are left with a Conservative Party that, after decades of pretending it was liberal (even neoliberal), has emerged blinking into the sunlight of its original purpose. And, while keeping with the idea of free exchange, free speech and good business, conservatives need to start struggling with the challenges that liberals simply don't have answers to:
Both white working-class and black inner-city neighbourhoods lack the civic institutions that allow for upward mobility.

...had the poor followed the success sequence, the U.S. poverty rate would have fallen by more than 70 percent.

“Youths who grow up with both biological parents earn more income, work more hours each week, and are more likely to be married themselves as adults, compared to children raised in single-parent families.”

...not only does controlling for family make-up pretty much eliminate differences between races but that the single best thing to reduce social pathologies like depression, alcoholism, suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence is to cut the rates of child abuse. And child abuse is dramatically higher where children are born outside marriage.
And, yes, part of the response to these questions is to understand the importance of employment and the employer in helping to provide the social capital that is needed. This might mean keeping a steel works or a car factory going for a while longer through subsidy if the alternative is tearing down the institution that helps sustain the local community. To rule such choices out as "mercantilism" is the act of rich and successful liberals rubbing the noses of ignorant provincials in the dirt of their supposed failure.

The same goes for policies that undermine the idea of marriage such as no fault divorce, civil partnership, ending tax or benefit privileges - these all seem fine to the wealthy liberal because it doesn't really seem to affect things much (they do but the other advantages of wealth and power cover this up). The pointlessness of the liberal attack on marriage is captured by the bit at the end of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' - up to then a joyous appreciation of these rights of passage - where the Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell characters agree not to get married for reasons that aren't abundantly clear in the movie.

Public authorities talk a lot about community but, more often than not, they mean a particular view of community as a target for support or else a definition based on that familiar game of equalities top trumps - the gay community, the black community, the Muslim community as so forth. The reality of community, at least if one mixes it with the idea of neighbourhood, is that it isn't about these differences or even the fragments of society thrown up by intersectionality when we apply it to localities. Community is, quite literally, about shared experience, the things we do together.

Here in Cullingworth we're one of those pale, stale, white places the liberals sneer at but, scratch the surface a bit and that isn't quite so true - as I wrote nearly ten years ago, the village is filled with people who're, some more obviously than others, not from round here. It works, people get along, jokes are made, experiences are shared and stuff gets done - from grander schemes like building a new village hall down to the mundane everyday stuff like getting a decent set of Christmas lights (and putting them up in the teeth of council bureaucracy) or organising the annual gala.

When JRF came to the neighbouring village of Denholme to look at loneliness, one of their findings was damning of the manner in which public authorities behave - people believed that they needed permission to care and, in the words of the lead researcher, 'regulation kills kindness'. As I wrote back then:
That we might not be allowed to pop in on Mr & Mrs Jones to make sure they're OK, maybe make them a cuppa and have a chat for half and hour. Unless we've undertaken the official "befriending" course, got the required clearances from the state and been attached to an organisation that "delivers" looking out for the neighbours.
This isn't about not wanting rules but rather than those pubic authorities have decided that people - and the communities in which they live - cannot be trusted. Even worse, these same authorities further believe that those communities (and I guess the people who live in them) need development. Either because they are poor or else because there's some intangible social something missing. Government is not interested in community except as a vehicle for implementing the strictures that liberal technocracy has decided are good for them.

In the end neoliberalism - ultra-liberalism, liberaltarianism as Tyler Cowan recently dubbed it - ends up devouring its own illogicality. It wants free speech (bot not THAT free speech), is wants choice (but not THAT choice) and it wants family, community and the institutions providing that community's essential social capital to operate according to a set of rules that really don't suit society. And, as Cowan sort of accepts in that recent article on "State Capacity Libertarianism" it doesn't really work.


Friday, 3 January 2020

Writing on Con Home - why we don't need fewer councillors

Something of a rant but with the serious point that elected people, especially councillors, are the way we hold the unelected people to account:
But far from us needing fewer politicians, we need more. Rather than taking the decision-making further away from ordinary residents with unitary councils, regional mayors, and combined authorities, we should, as Conservatives, be wanting to get more decisions made right down in the communities where those ordinary residents live, by people they know and can speak with. Right now, our system of local democracy doesn’t function well, and the lack of real accountability is a big reason for this.
Whole piece on the always excellent Conservative Home.


Thursday, 2 January 2020

Conservatism - the home for grown up libertarians

 Although you can't, of course, use the actual word 'conservatism':
Many of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity. Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending. Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality. I favor much more immigration, nonetheless I think our government needs clear standards for who cannot get in, who will be forced to leave, and a workable court system to back all that up and today we do not have that either. Those problems require state capacity — albeit to boost markets — in a way that classical libertarianism is poorly suited to deal with. Furthermore, libertarianism is parasitic upon State Capacity Libertarianism to some degree.
This (and the rest of Tyler Cowan's article) describes what I'd call 'institutional conservatism' - if you want to maintain an effective system not only should it be allowed to evolve but it needs to be well managed. What's happened is that essentially liberal-minded people have realised, as Cowan comments, how " doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems...". Cowan cites climate change (where a common libertarian response is simply to deny it) but, more importantly in my view, we should look at how the sociological evidence around social infrastructure, communities and families all leads away from a hyper-liberal approach and towards conservatism.

What's important here is that, unlike (almost all) the left, we need to begin with recognising that markets and capitalism remain an essential part of the solution to problems such as climate change but also need what Cowan calls 'state capacity' to ensure social outcomes - from good public transport and nuclear power through to welfare and health safety nets - are secured.

My instincts are impeccably liberal and I don't consider that government should be the first choice for delivering any service but it seems clear that the social damage done by ultra-liberalism requires intervention - from the growth of loneliness and the collapse of the working class family through to violent crime and class bias in educational outcomes there's a case for government to act in the interests of the working person rather than simply to follow the liberal, utility maximising imperative.

I've long thought that, to oversimplify, economics is liberal while sociology is conservative (and the academy for both of them is filled with socialists). And that the division in national priorities flickers between an emphasis on community, family, security - the conservative instinct - and one on growth, progress, wealth - the liberal preference. Moreover, conservatism is the only practical politics able, at its best, to marry these imperatives in a lasting manner. Sadly conservatives, especially in the USA, have become bogeymen to intellectuals - self-interested plutocrats or rednecks with bad teeth and guns. The former is conservatism as the merely the rich preserving their interests while the latter is a modern urban snobbery about those less well-educated folk outside the city.

Rampant liberalism, the 'Thatcherism' that great lady never believed in that young men with cash and good suits brashly proclaim, has damaged the idea of conservatism as much as has the endemic infections of reaction, racism and small-mindedness. Even if burning fifty quid notes in front of the homeless is a bit of a myth, the sentiment - that the poor are solely responsible for their poverty and for getting out of that poverty - remains too common. Just like absolutist approaches to individual choice (witness the trans ID debate), this hyper-liberal idea is a corruption of decency, moderation and good sense. Plus it denies duty, responsibility and community as central parts of our worlds.

So if you've read Tyler Cowan's "state capacity libertarianism" and find its argument persuasive, I'd like to welcome you to conservatism, to a world of compromise, consensus and good government. Then you can join in making better policy for the families and communities that make up the societies in which we live - get them better lives, safer communities and (as Tom T Hall would say) more money.


Saturday, 28 December 2019

Boondoggle, Whitehall or devolution? How investment appraisal might make a Yorkshire Assembly the right choice.

In one of its first significant acts, the new Conservative government has signalled its intention to reform the rules governing infrastructure investment:
...under the new plans, reported on Friday, investment decisions would be made with a focus on reducing inequality between northern and southern England, rather than promoting overall economic growth across the country.
Writing here in the North this is welcome news but represents just a start - the rules are still Whitehall's rules and the investment decisions are still Whitehall's investment decisions. There will still be enormous pressures from London and the South East for new investment - in more London rail infrastructure, in a new bridge or two and in relieving the pressure on the M25 - and let's remember that nearly all the people writing and lobbying for these investments live in those places.

I recall sitting in a meeting somewhere in Leeds with Lord Adonis who was then the Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission. Two things came away from that meeting: firstly that the method for appraising transport investment favoured London for simple economic reasons; and secondly that London had spent the time and money preparing proposals that, if not 'shovel-ready' were advanced and actionable. The reality back then (and it hasn't changed much since) is that the North has plenty of (often slightly pie-in-sky - or do I mean tunnel-under-the-pennines) ideas but precious little detailed work. And, to make matters worse there are a host of competing schemes - go East of York and they'll tell you to dual the A64, head to Cumbria and they'll mither about how near impossible it is to get in and out of West Cumbria.

This is just the transport investment, we've not got to ideas about freeports, suggestions for improving town centres or a myriad of thoughts about business parks and "creative quarters". Hacking through this forest to get to things that might take us a step towards rebalancing the UK's economy will be a Herculean task, one made worse by a constant chatter and chunter from those 'leaders' about the investment.

It seems from here at least that there are three possible routes to take through the forest of ideas:

1. Boondoggle
2. Whitehall
3. Devolution

Given the political imperative of the programme, the boondoggle seems the likeliest route. With the new system for appraising proposals being something of a fudge but still under ministerial control, preference for investment will go to places with the right political vibe - Teeside with a majority of Conservative MPs and a Conservative mayor, Stoke-on-Trent with much the same, and the Black Country newly prominent in Tory thinking. The thing with boondoggles is that they can't be too blatant, there has to be a veneer of authenticity - typically a project appraisal or business case - prepared under the aegis of the relevant government department. And this is where the clash with Whitehall comes in.

A Whitehall-led system will try not to diverge far from the current utilitarian appraisal system (albeit one that has been painted green in a nod to climate change and to please the rail lobby) meaning that the process will favour cities over suburbia and small town. You'll spot how this clashes with boondoggles because those newly minted Conservative MPs represent suburbs and small towns not the larger cities. If you're the new MP for Leigh, having a high speed rail link from Manchester to Liverpool doesn't count as a win and if you've just got elected for the Don Valley, a decision to move some government department to Leeds simply doesn't deliver the promise. If the government is shouting about investing in the North but all the money goes to Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, the promise to people living in that "Red Wall" won't be met.

This is where the government needs to be cautious about the third way to deliver - devolution. Right now there's an existing model based on the (outdated and widely discredited) idea of 'functional economic geography' as the basis for local governance. We've got local mayors for the West Midlands, Teeside, Manchester, Liverpool and South Yorkshire each with a bully pulpit and the favoured attention of Whitehall but, with one or two exceptions, these geographies act as much to divide as to unite. David Cameron may have joked about how Yorkshire couldn't agree on anything but the reality is that the manner in which that 'functional economic geography' works in practice makes for all the wrong sorts of governance structures - without history, local buy-in or real cohesion.

The core issue with 'fuctional economic geography' lies in its reliance on central place theories, on the idea that hub-and-spoke explanations adequate describe how people move around. This is where the idea of high speed rail fits - we link together the big city centres because they are the key drivers of economic growth. The problem is that those 'left behind' places are still left behind under this model and we have, in a city mayor model of governance a system that acts to compound the preference for the big city centre over more disbursed development models. Worse the mayoral model (as currently designed) fails to provide anything other than an elite voice for those towns and suburbs - councils leaders and chief executives do not, in my experience at least, provide the accountability needed to make the model work.

In other devolved systems this is avoided, either by not having an elected mayor (Scotland, Wales) or by there being a strong, elected assembly holding an elected mayor to account (London, Spanish regional government). The system introduced in England outside London fails in respect of accountability but the legislation has therefore limited the scope of devolution to the point where the mayor is little more than someone with a platform to lobby Whitehall plus the money to run some buses. It's better than nothing but, if the North is serious about taking more control of its own destiny, its constituent parts need to start arguing for either a better form of devolution (more akin to London or Wales) or else the return of powers to local government - plus maybe creating unitary councils were the system is still two-tier.

My own view is that my region should be arguing for a Yorkshire Assembly (with or without a directly elected mayor) with similar levels of devolved authority to Wales. I understand that some folk hesitate at this from fear of it leading to the 'Balkanisation' of England - an English Parliament would be better, they say - but I don't think that would deliver on the promise to left behind places in the North and Midlands in the way that a substantive regional devolution would. Nor do I think reasonably cohesive places like Yorkshire should wait for other regions before calling for substantial devolution.

To return to how this might work for infrastructure investment consider that a Yorkshire Assembly would judge investment on the basis of what is best for Yorkshire's economy and that this would be done in the context of having accountable representatives with a say in that division from every part of the county. This seems to me a better approach than one where Whitehall plus opaque lobbying dominates investment choice.


Sunday, 22 December 2019

There is no such thing as social conservatism, there is just conservatism

Since the recent general election there has been an outbreak of writing about a thing called "social conservatism" best summed up in observations about tactical positioning for political campaigns - "move a little left economically and a little right socially". I am, if you forgive me, just a little bemused about this argument and how it has been characterised using a qualified depiction of conservatism. It's as if we can't take the whole package of conservative ideas, just the 'social' bits.

In one respect this terminology has allowed those inherently opposed to conservatism - liberals, fascists, socialists and communists - to attack the idea by describing 'social conservatism' as variously racist, sexist, homophobic and backward looking. This is mostly done by those opposing forces choosing to define conservatism negatively ('social conservatism is anti-immigrant', 'social conservatism is authoritarian', 'social conservatism is anti-LGBT') thereby allowing them to hack away at a convenient straw bogeyman.

The problem is that (and this is the source of my bemusement) there is no such thing as social conservatism, there is just conservatism. It's the idea that we're all in this boat called Britain together and we'd better get along, trust each other and work together if we're going to make a decent fist of the place. It's the idea - as Kipling told us - that, much though we want and try to love the whole world, "our hearts are small" and we focus on the places we know and love most. When people use the misleading term 'social conservatism' they are simply describing this central idea for conservatives - it is a reminder that conservatism doesn't see economics as the all-defining idea of human progress in the way that liberalism (and its corrupted half-brother socialism) see it.

Unsurprisingly Kenan Malik, writing in the Observer, engages in both of these falsehoods - creating that straw bogeyman and characterising social conservatism as somehow distinct from other forms of conservatism:
Working-class wariness of immigration is not an expression of an innate social conservatism but of the loss of trust, the breaking of social bonds and a sense of voicelessness. Working-class lives have been made more precarious not just through material deprivation, but through the erosion of the more intangible aspects of their lives – their place in society, the sense of community, the desire for dignity.
Malik suggests, in what John Duffield on Twitter called "Left wing "orientalism" towards conservatism", that the working class is not socially conservative because we shouldn't "...confuse anger at social atomisation and political voicelessness with social conservatism."

The problem here is that the loss of trust and those intangible things Malik describes - place, community, dignity - are the very things that conservatives wrestle with most. This is what Disraeli wrote about in Sybil - the idea of 'two nations' and the need to bring them together, the sense that the industrial revolution, for all its advances, had left a fragmented society - "atomised" to use Malik's word. Disraeli, as a conservative, had a closer understanding of the social purpose of Chartism than liberals or socialists because he put the need to improve the condition of the working man - socially as much as economically - as the central purpose of his conservatism.

For all the talk of policy platforms and proposals, the big challenges facing us are less economic than they are social - the decline in fertility, the rise in loneliness, cities filled with single people, the loss of trust in each other, the collapse of vital institutions like marriage and the family, and the focus on paid work as the only valued thing in society. Put these alongside a sense that we've lost the idea of personal responsibility, that chivalry is disdained and that we all have rights but not duties, and there's a clear description of the conservative imperative for change.

I don't know whether Boris Johnson's government will be able - or even intends - to start the process of rebuilding trust, strengthening communities and promoting personal responsibility and duty, but I do know that this is what we mean by conservatism. Yes it is, for reason of Kipling's small hearts, patriotic. Yes it is supportive of marriage and families because they're the base units of society. And yes it likes faith and the idea of the transcendent. But it is also right there with the idea of giving people voice, supporting communities and giving support to the vulnerable. The Conservative Party - an often uneasy alliance between liberals and conservatives - may not always put these ideas centre and front, we certainly didn't (at least rhetorically) during the Thatcher years, but this does not make them any less central to the ideology of conservatism.

It is ironic that "there is no such thing as society" became embedded in the left's idea of conservatism to such an extent that the truth of it - that society is built of "individual men and women" and "families" (the rest of Margaret Thatcher's quotation) - is lost. Thatcher's comment represents the balancing act in her party between liberalism and conservatism by putting the idea of society in the context of both individualism and families. What conservatives don't (which socialists and fascists do) see is that society is greater than the sum of its parts, it is a means to an end not an end in itself. And conservatives also believe that the institutions of society should, wherever possibly, be human in scale, accessible to all and trusted.

It was welcome that, on Disraeli's birthday, James Cleverly the Conservative Party Chairman shared some of his ideas. We seem to have escaped from a deadening, almost unhuman utilitarianism, the cold emotionless Hayekian world, and returned to where conservatives began, with the idea that community matters, that the base institutions of society like family, marriage and faith need protecting and preserving, and that our purpose is to make the lives of ordinary people better.